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Children are coming of age in the pandemic – and a new wave of books are capturing the moment | Children and teenagers

When the Australian borders closed in March 2020, I lay on the bed and every particle of me went rigid – a whole body takeover. I had left London for Melbourne 15 years ago with my Australian partner and couldn’t look at him; I was having unhelpful thoughts about whose fault this whole situation was. My specific nightmare of being cut off from family during a global crisis was coming true.

Eventually I got out of bed, for my kids. And like everyone else, I tried to be hopeful. I spent hours sewing a face mask that looked like Grug, perfected the negroni and took up birdwatching.

At that point, the last thing I wanted to read was a pandemic book. When authors on Twitter casually mentioned their novels with a pandemic theme, I thought, “Nice try, not on your life.” When I read books, it was to escape.

Later in 2020 there was another blow: my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents promised they were being sensible, but the UK death rate was accelerating into numbers that seemed unreal, and there was no way for me to get there.

I tried to brace myself for the possibility that I’d never see them again – but you can’t. What helped was focusing on everyone else’s pandemic, which also led me to understand there would never be a universal Covid story. We were all in it together and chronically out of step, like a silent disco.

But while novelists were wrestling with how Covid was messing with their works-in-progress, many vowing not to go near the topic, by late 2020 I’d noticed some beautiful Australian picture books about lockdowns, including Windows by Patrick Guest and Jonathan Bentley, The Heart of the Bubble by Trace Balla, and I’m a Hero Too by Jamila Rizvi and Peter Cheong. I noted the tagline of the latter: “To make sense of the changes in [young children’s] lives brought about by Covid-19 and to bring reassurance.”

With the initial shock behind us and the arrival of vaccines, I was curiously drawn to Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I could not have predicted that taking the reader swiftly from deadly virus to collapse of civilisation would feel so restorative. Here was beauty and humanity and, yes, bleakness and fear, but not melancholy. I felt buoyed. It made me wonder: is anyone going to try to make sense of 2020 for my favourite readership – the children nearing the end of primary and into early high school?

The Goodbye Year by Emily Gale is out September 2022 through Text Publishing
The Goodbye Year by Emily Gale

I decided I would. So I wrote a novel for children charting one year of a girl’s life in Melbourne. In The Goodbye Year, Harper is beginning her final year of primary school. She’s brimming with nervous expectation in January 2020, but farewells her parents in February to live with her grandmother while they move overseas for work. I gave Harper plenty to compensate for not having her parents around, but by March you know the drill: locked down, released, locked down, released … In my story the pandemic is the frame but it’s not the picture.

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Many people say they want to forget about 2020, and fair enough, too. But if you’re aged nine to 12, Covid-19 has framed a quarter of your existence. You were stopped in your tracks. You had to adapt. You lived through times that floored adults and came out the other side only to find it full of mutations. You have questions and unprocessed feelings. Like we all did at that age, you’re convinced that no one understands what it’s like to be you.

As we move into yet another phase of the pandemic, we’re starting to see the experiences of Australian children find their way into fiction. Although I don’t know of any other novels that span 2020, for children in late primary there’s a story called Quaranteen in Oliver Phommavanh’s funny collection Brain Freeze, and some excellent reckoning with Covid anxiety in Fiona Wood’s How To Spell Catastrophe, set in slightly more relaxing 2021. Dear Greta by Yvette Poshoglian takes place between Sydney lockdowns.

For teenagers, Covid representation appears in The Greatest Hit by Will Kostakis and A Walk in the Dark by Jane Godwin, with references to the pandemic in My Spare Heart by Jared Thomas. Keeping my ear to the ground, I know there are more to come late this year and early next. I’m heartened to see anthologies of children’s writing, such as Melissa Gijsbers’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to … , and A User’s Guide to a Pandemic produced by 100 Story Building.

A girl reading in a window in France
For children, the pandemic defines their youth. Books can help them make sense of it. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

A common motif in my novels is reunions: that sweet release of fear, arms around each other. In December 2021, I got mine. Dad, waiting at arrivals with a newspaper tucked under his arm, cancer still in his lungs and a smile on his lovely, bearded face. Beautiful mum at the front door in full makeup at 6am, holding out her arms and laughing nervously at how unbelievable it was to be face to face again.

Adults may be nostalgic for the life we had before, but our children are coming of age in the pandemic. It defines their youth. If we write about it for them, it’s like making a time capsule: telling them that these things they’ve lived through are important and will continue to gain meaning the more we try to make sense of them. We can show them that a life lived in a pandemic frame doesn’t have to stop them from grabbing the adventures they deserve.

Covid: a children’s reading list

These books by Australian authors reference Covid-19 – or, in a few cases, fantasy or historical pandemics – to varying degrees, from minor humorous references through to the larger themes of coping with anxiety, being in between lockdowns and adjusting to life after the first two years.

Picture books

Children’s literature for 9-12 readers

Books for teenagers

Writing by children

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